Chapter 9: House Call
Those guys had smelled like clay. Clay and raw meat. What could she possibly glean from that information? What on earth did she have to go on besides someone wanted her captured or killed?
Frankly, she was tired of being picked up deliberately and tied up.
Maybe it was time to turn the tables and go after her potential kidnappers.
It had been unexpected to not be bothered by them, but she assumed that Tadashi had taken care of the threat.
That was an even bigger mystery.
The mysterious case of Kido Tadashi.
But back on the subject of the guys who were about to pick her off—the clay had smelled dry and dusty, which meant that it was probably bricks that she had been smelling.
All of the buildings made of brick in Coral Cove were stone, that she knew of.
It was more likely that it was a structure built outside of Coral Cove by Red Rock River, known by definition for its abundance of clay.
“He should be fine as long as he stays here for a few days.” A new voice broke into her thoughts.
Makoto jumped, her hand falling off of Chester’s as she looked up and beheld the doctor who had entered the room. She glanced back at the sleeping form of her friend, bandaged and gauzed all over the place. “How long?” She didn’t care about his part in their case.
She didn’t care that she might give it up for the sake of his inability to help. She’d rather burn the entire thing than make him get up before he was ready.
She just wanted him healed.
She’d already lost Takeo. She wasn’t risking Chester, even if it was just a few burns.
“Ma’am, that steam was under 65 pounds of pressure.” The doctor said slowly. “He might be here for a week. Maybe longer.”
“Can you guarantee a full recovery?” Makoto asked softly.
“I can’t guarantee any recovery, much less full. Mr. Strapps is severely burned in various places. There’s every possibility that his body fails to heal in one way or another. I’d even go so far as to warn you to be prepared for infection to be involved. I’m sorry, ma’am, but while there’s a high likelihood—probability, even—that he’ll come out just fine, there’s always the possibility that things will go south.”
By the time he finished, Makoto was glaring.
He almost flinched under her stare, and he took a slow step backwards, scratching the back of his neck. He cleared his throat.
“If you’re finished, Doctor,” She said pointedly, staring over his shoulder at the door.
He nodded quickly and left before she had the chance to jump up and deck him.
She felt her eyes begin to water as her breath clenched. A painful knot clumped in her chest and she stood. She couldn’t stay there. Even though she felt horrible for leaving his side, she couldn’t stay there.
“Dumb as a brick soldier, burned himself to a crisp.” She muttered, backing away and stopping at the end of his bed. “Don’t go anywhere—”
With a bone-jarring halt, she froze. Dumb as a brick. Burned. Clay. She suddenly gripped the foot rail of the bed. “Chester, you’re a genius. I’ll be back. Don’t go anywhere.” She scooped her jacked off the chair and fled the room.
~ Burned Brick Manor ~
The mansion was enormous, built thirty miles outside of Coral Cove, sitting three miles into the forest on the bend of Red Rock River.
There was a tower on each corner, causing it to look very much like a European castle. It had been constructed in 2000, and then burned nearly to the ground in 2003. After it’s rebuild, the fire earned it the name Burned Brick Manor.
It had been owned by a woman named Morgan Edwards for nearly twenty years before she packed up and moved to somewhere in Montana.
After that, there was no record of the manor being sold to anyone as far as Makoto could tell. But—she took a whiff of the air around her—it smelled strongly of clay, thorns, and the horrible stench of raw meat. It was definitely the place.
She trekked along the driveway, not really caring if anyone saw her. There were enough innocent explanations for trespassing without looking suspicious.
There were fresh tire tracks from a large truck. An 18-wheeler to be exact. Why an 18-wheeler would be making deliveries to a private mansion hidden in the woods of Oregon was unknown to her.
As she passed the front of the mansion, she peered curiously at a bush that looked kind of squished, with broken branches and torn leaves all around it on the ground. She glanced above it to a window three stories up.
Some clumsy idiot had taken a swan dive out the window within the past two days.
She shook her head in amazement and kept walking. As she went, the smell of raw meat strengthened. Her steps began to slow as possibilities flooded her mind.
None of them were extremely pleasant to think about or look forward to finding, but she kept walking. As her footsteps crunched in the gravel, she heard heavy pounding from inside the mansion, like the heavy swings of a mallet.
She walked right up to the front door, and then froze. Right behind her was the sound of soft breathing. It was slow, four seconds between each inhale or exhale. Every third breath hitched as though pained, otherwise it would have been too silent for her to hear.
She was about to throw a weak elbow at his gut when she heard the distinct smell of caveman.
She wrinkled her nose. “Seriously, dude,” She whispered. “Baking soda.”
“If you’re about to knock, don’t.” Hybrid responded from right behind her.
“Duly noted.” Makoto said, right before she pounded her fists against the door.
There was absolute silence behind her as he processed what she had just done. “Do you want to die?”
“No one said I was planning to die. Are you the one who murdered that poor bush around the corner?” Makoto turned around to glance at him, seeing his arms crossed and his head cocked to the side.
He grabbed her elbow with one hand. “Come on. We’re leaving.”
She jerked it back. He let her go for the sake of saving her from spraining her own arm. “I’m doing this. Tuck tail and run if you like, or hide and be my secret weapon. Your choice.”
She turned around just in time to see the door swinging open. Before she even tried to identify the person on the other side, she focused her senses on what was behind her.
When she was met by silence, she knew that Hybrid was long gone.
She let her eyes focus on the guy who opened the door. He was staring at her, eyes wide. He obviously couldn’t believe that she was there.
“Let me guess.” She started, with a cute smile. “You want me captured so that either my father will pay you for my return or you can lure Hybrid and Ronin in after me so you can have an epic smash-down—and, I’m sorry, but that would end with them smashing and you downing—so here I am and here he is.”
The guy stuttered, shifting closer to the door frame, almost certainly reaching for a rifle. “Here who is?”
Makoto didn’t even have to duck as Hybrid flew over her head, tackling the guy to the floor, knocking him out as his head smacked against the ground.
“Him,” Makoto responded, stepping over his body. She glanced at her new protector as Hybrid followed her.
“So tell me—why does Ronin want me protected? Really?” She strolled down a stone hallway, pausing appreciatively at a few paintings that lined the walls. She had decided that as long as she was spending good money to become a detective, she might as well try to figure out who the two protectors of Coral Cove, Oregon were.
“Ronin and I work for an agency who, by request, put us in contact with your father.” Hybrid said quietly.
Makoto stopped so abruptly that he bumped into her. “My father?” She repeated, heart pounding.
“He wants you protected. I got the job. Means I’m going with you to Chicago.” Hybrid gave her a small nudge.
Makoto kept walking. It made sense, she supposed. Her father was a rich diplomat who could get anyone he wanted to protect his daughter. Why not get in contact with the Variants?
“Wouldn’t it be less conspicuous without the mask?” She asked.
“I’m not going for discretion.” Hybrid responded. “I’m aiming to intimidate.”
Makoto glanced around the corner. Nothing. She kept moving, nauseated by the smell of raw meat. It was awful. What was it for? Why was it so prominent? Where was it coming from?
A soft scuff sounded to her left, followed by a gentle whizzing of something flying through the air. She spun and ducked just as Hybrid caught a bat in his palm, intercepting it’s path to her head.
He jerked it, knocking its owner off balance and kicking him in the stomach.
Makoto heard Hybrid grunt in pain at the movement, and she was so busy trying to detect where he was hurt that she didn’t realize she was backing into the arms of someone who definitely wasn’t looking out for her best interests.
Her skin went cold like a snap as a hand closed around her throat. She lifted her knee to stomp her attacker in the foot, but then a volt of electricity coursed through her from the hand and she crumpled to the ground.
The ceiling was bumping past her at a run when her eyes peeled open moments later. Or was it the floor? Or maybe one of the walls?
No, it was definitely the ceiling.
But it wasn’t running.
The arms that were holding her were running. No, not the arms. The owner of the arms.
When her head slid off the person’s shoulder, she caught a glimpse of the black and red mask of Hybrid. She heaved a sigh of relief, but then whimpered as the cold air stung past her throat.
“What—” She squeaked, and then clamped her mouth shut. It didn’t hurt as badly that time, but it still stung.
Oh, yeah. Electricity burn. She’d be able to talk in a few minutes, but the discomfort would last well into the next day, probably.
“Hospital.” He responded simply, running into the open air outside of the manor and down the driveway toward her car.
No, she still had to investigate that horrible smell.
Ugh, she probably reeked of that horrible smell.
Hybrid stopped outside of her car and set her on her feet, leaving her to sway dizzily on her own feet as he unzipped her backpack and dug through it for her keys.
She gave him a shove, but he already had them in his hands. “Hey.” She glared at him, and managed to grab them before he could get into her vehicle and drive away.
With a deadly glower, she yanked her door open and fell into the seat. As she was starting the car, though, Hybrid came around and slipped into the passenger seat.
“Hospital,” He ordered.
“Fine.” Makoto snapped, cursing her sore throat. She leaned her head against the steering wheel for a long moment, trying to regain her sense of awareness.
The hospital was where Chester was.
He could be healing or he could be dying.
What if he died?
No. Stop. Don’t you dare think about that. You’re focusing on a mission. You’re being a detective right now. You’re working.
It might be her last case.
She might have to give up her mysteries for the sake of managing her diabetes. If she gave up her mysteries, she’d be confined to her own house for the rest of her life.
And if Chester died, there would be no one to rescue her when she needed it. She couldn’t even wait with hope for Takeo to come home anymore.
Tears splattered against the leather steering wheel before she could stop them.
He told me to be strong, Makoto moaned. But I don’t know how.
A broken sob caught in her throat, a ragged breath bursting past her throat.
“Are you okay?”
She jumped, remembering Hybrid’s presence. She sat upright, scrubbing at her face. “Yep,” She chirped, reaching for the gear shifter and forcing her tremoring ribcage to relax and fall still.
His hand snapped out and grabbed her wrist, stopping her from moving. “I don’t trust you to drive while you’re crying.” He said.
She threw his hand off with another glare. “Real Mr. Sensitivity you are.” She snapped, slamming the shifter into reverse and then backed out of the driveway with over abundant gentleness.
“I’m sorry,” He backpedaled carefully. “Are you hurt?”
She shook her head softly, switching to drive and getting on the road. She wasn’t hurt, and she didn’t need the hospital. She’d just have to make him go with her to follow up on some research that she’d done.
Of course, he didn’t need to know that until it was too late for him to argue...
“I’m fine.” She responded.
And, trusty backstabber that it was, her voice broke, betraying her heart’s damage in the midst of her denial. “I’m good,” She tried again, but her statement only shook weakly.
She had to drive over thirty miles with this guy?
And he wasn’t giving it up. “Makoto, if you need—”
Her grip tightened on the steering wheel as she met his eyes with a deadly frown. “I don’t do heart-to-hearts, Hybrid. Don’t even try or so help me I’ll launch you through the windshield.”
Heart-to-hearts never ended well for her.
Friends become enemies. Words become weapons. Vulnerability becomes weakness.
At last, he respected her wishes and stopped talking.
“Makoto.” Hybrid’s thickly modulated voice broke the silence some time later.
“What?” She asked. Her tone had become softer after she’d been given the chance to cool off and let her mind wander.
“Hospital’s four driveways back.” He said shortly. After all, why waste words when you can get your point across in a condensed and short winded manner?
“Why do we need to go to the hospital? Are you hurt?” She asked innocently.
“You need to get checked on.” He responded firmly.
Makoto couldn’t believe there was a Variant in her passenger seat like a regular civilian, discussing her health. Who knew how long before they started talking about the weather.
“I’m not that delicate.” She said carefully. There didn’t seem to be anyone but Chester who wouldn’t treat her like she couldn’t handle anything.
Hybrid was just like Tadashi, Hiroshida, and Sakuza.
“You have diabetes.” He said flatly.
She reached across the car and smacked him upside the head. He let her.
“No.” She reprimanded him as though he were a child. “You got me to tell you about that. Consider it a privilege that you even know. But you don’t get to use it against me. I’m not all of a sudden weak and sickly because I have diabetes. I don’t have a sudden rock-bottom pain threshold because my pancreas can’t lower my blood sugar. So don’t ever say the word ‘diabetes’ in relation to me unless it is actually relevant and appropriate. Got that?”
There was a long moment of silence.
“So help me, Hybrid, I’ll kick you out of my car.”
“Fine. Got it.” He relented with a grunt. “Where are we going?”
Makoto turned her attention back to the road. “Before I got distracted by Burned Brick Manor, I was thinking about heading out to Coral Wharf.”
“For what? Seafood?”
“I have some of Heilner’s old documents. A member of her crew used to live out there.” She wished he would stop talking. For some strange reason, she didn’t like him being there.
She didn’t trust him.
She didn’t want to trust him.
She didn’t like his sudden willingness to accompany her. She didn’t like the company of anyone other than, on occasion, Chester.
She felt completely on edge in Hybrid’s presence.
When at last she pulled up close enough to the wharf, she shouldered her backpack and shut her door behind her. She turned to Hybrid, who was watching the boats with mild curiosity.
“You can go,” She said awkwardly.
His head slowly swiveled around to meet her gaze with cat-like laziness. He didn’t respond, but he didn’t look convinced, either.
“You don’t have to come with me. I’m good.” She took a few hesitant steps backwards.
“Not my call.” He responded flatly.
“Yeah, my dad hired you, I know. But eventually you’ll realize that only one person gets in trouble for the faults of the world, and it ain’t you. So you can come with me or you can save your skin from my knife and go chase a mouse or something.”
Satisfied with the resolute determination in her own voice and the firmness with which she carried the words, Makoto spun on her heel and marched away, head level.
“You don’t want me coming with you anywhere ever, do you?” He called quietly, making her pause.
“No.” She responded, not turning around. “I don’t.”
If she hadn’t been so hesitant to be confident in her abilities to translate emotion through his modulator, Makoto would have sworn he sounded pained.
She turned just slightly, hands in her pockets. “Because as much as I need you to protect me, I have no way to protect myself from you.” The words were harsh and insensitive toward him, but absolutely true.
Nobody said the truth had to be easy to listen to.
Nobody said the truth had to be easy to say.
How many people could think that admitting that she was severely allergic to vulnerability was an easy thing to do?
She spun in an about-face and moved onward, never looking back.
Hopeful that he wouldn’t follow her, then pulled her phone from her pocket and checked the address again.
If the guy were still alive, he’d be pretty old. She only prayed he’d be willing to help her.
The boards beneath her feet creaked and groaned as she stepped out on the pier, studying the line of houses that stood to her left.
She checked her watch.
She had roughly two hours before she had to be home to start packing.
If she decided to go. After all, Chester was in the hospital. She couldn’t let him be alone, could she?
It wasn’t long before she found the house she was looking for. It looked older than the rest, worn by the weather. She thought it looked like it might float away with the next high tide.
Watching her feet carefully, Makoto made her way up to the front porch, around all the rotted holes in the steps.
She suddenly wondered if maybe she should be carrying some kind of weapon with her when she went to talk to people.
She raised her fist to knock, but it was already being opened. Talk about creepy.
Makoto fought back her nervousness as the door swung wide to reveal the lined and weathered face of a surly-looking old man. He gave her a polite smile. “Yes?”
She cleared her throat. “I’m looking for Bill Greenhook.
He nodded, his actions shaky. “That’d be me. How can I help you?”
She lifted a shoulder in an easy shrug, meaning to release the stiff tension of the situation. “I heard that you were a member of Captain Heilner’s crew. Is that true?”
He suddenly looked unsure, but his smile didn’t fade. “Um, yes, but not for a very long time.”
She laughed softly, shaking her head. “No, sir, I know. I was just hoping I could talk to you about her disappearance.”
He suddenly nodded eagerly. “Absolutely, won’t you come in?”
Warning bells flashed in her mind. Go into a stranger’s house alone with no way to defend herself. No thank you. She hesitated. “Um—”
He gave her an apologetic look. “I would come out to you, but I’ve got food on the stove and we either do it inside or we reschedule...?” He offered gently.
She couldn’t do it later unless she wanted to wait until next week. And she really didn’t, so she shook her head. “No, it’s fine.”
She followed him into his mud room and hoped he wouldn’t ask her to leave her boots with the collection of shoes under the bench.
Fortunately, he gave her a passing wave. “Don’t worry about the shoes—I’ve got hardwood.”
The old man hobbled up to the door that presumably led the living area of the house. She followed him up the steps and waited as he fumbled with the rattling doorknob.
Finally he pushed the door inward.
Instead of the smell of good or possibly burning food was the sound of lapping water.
Makoto frowned in confusion but her view was obscured by his back. Did he have a fountain in his house?
“Come on in, Miss.” He beckoned, guiding her inside.
With extreme caution, Makoto stepped into the house and very calmly came to a stop. She hadn’t expected what she saw, but she wasn’t shocked by it either.
The entire middle portion of the floor had been broken away and the ocean was visible below. There were two of the weird shark people on the lip of the broken hardwood, both of them armed.
Bill Greenhook turned to her with that same smile that suddenly seemed terrifyingly malicious. “I assume you want to know about the Quarter Piece.”
Makoto swallowed, somehow keeping her cool. “Yeah—if you don’t mind answering a few questions.”
There was no way any of them were going to cooperate. They had her right where they wanted her. What she still couldn’t figure out was the shark people.
Bill was easy. He’d obviously struck some kind of deal with the creatures, either to find the remaining pieces together or to give them his piece in exchange for his life.
Makoto figured that her own part to play was probably just fortunate coincidence on their part.
But who were the shark people? Where did they come from? What did they want?
Actually, she thought that maybe they had come from Dimension X and they wanted a way back via the Quarter Piece.
But other than that, she was admittedly lost.
“Oh, yeah, sure. Just come sit over here and put your feet in the water.” Bill smirked at her, enjoying having the upper hand.
She suddenly caught a whiff of wet fur and leather through the open door. Makoto cocked her head to the side thoughtfully. “This is going to sound completely horrible, but I’m not as stupid as you are.”
Bill raised an eyebrow. “Says the girl who walked unknowingly into a trap.”
“Unknowingly?” She repeated, tucking her hands behind her back and strolling around the room on the outside of the hole. “Not at all. I know quite a lot of things about what’s going on right now.”
She ‘accidentally’ kicked a stack of magazines into the water and shot Bill a wide-eyed innocent look. “My bad.”
He didn’t care. Magazines clearly weren’t a huge priority.
“Like what?” The old man demanded in a raspy voice.
“I know your pals here don’t much care about any loyalties to you.” She nodded to the shark people. “In fact, they’re kind of looking at you like you’re dinner.” She shivered mockingly. “Unsettling.”
“Actually, thanks to you, I’m free and clear of any debts owed them. So I appreciate your visit, Makoto, really.” Greenhook smiled at her.
“Wrong,” Makoto chirped, bouncing on the balls of her feet. Then she gave him a patronizing look. “Turn the TV on, dude. Top of the list of cliché plot lines. Bad guy makes deal, promises to let stupid victim live. Stupid victim holds up their end of the deal and expects that they’ll be breathing tomorrow. Unexpected plot twist!—bad guy gets what they want and kill stupid victim. It’s called tying up loose ends and it’s undeniably on their agenda. Any last words?”
Bill crossed the room, surprisingly quickly for an old man, reaching for her throat.
She seized an iron poker from the fireplace and aimed for his head. He caught it and she swung with her left.
When the strangely energetic old guy had both of her wrists in his hands, she jammed her boot into his solar plexus and tried to spin out of his grip.
He used her momentum to pull her closer and wrap an arm around her throat. Curse her horrible fight skills.
“Congratulations, genius, you’re defenseless.” Bill growled into her ear.
“Wrong again,” She gasped breathlessly, tugging at his arm in frantic desperation, just as a cat-like yowl roared through the house and an enormous black cat leapt into the room.
Bill dropped Makoto, falling back in absolute terror while the two shark guys lifted their weapons, something like anger in their gazes.
Makoto crawled toward the door as Hybrid beat the living daylights out of everyone else. It was kind of pathetic how quickly he cut down his opponents until it was just Bill Greenhook.
She got to her feet, turning to watch. Hybrid slunk forward, ready to pounce on the old sailor and gut him. Makoto took a single step forward and laid a hand on Hybrid’s shoulder, causing him to freeze instantly, but not without a warning growl in Bill’s direction.
For the first time, Makoto got a few seconds to inspect Hybrid’s feline form up close.
The tops of his shoulders were at level with her head. His enormous paws were like small tires. His teeth were knives and his tail was like a snake.
His fur was warm and soft to the touch, his skin vibrating with energy beneath her fingers. A tingling sensation shot up her arm as she felt him growl a warning at Bill Greenhook.
He was an amazing creature, but it wasn’t the time to be focused on that.
She took two slow steps towards Greenhook, until she could feel Hybrid’s warm breath against her back and shoulders.
“That thing is yours?” Bill screeched, scrambling backwards in terrible fright.
Makoto offered him a soft smile. “If you’d like to see it that way. But it doesn’t matter. What matters is that you are at a tremendous disadvantage. What would you like to do about it?”
Bill swallowed, his entire body shaking in terror. His gaze flashed between Makoto and Hybrid in a panic.
Makoto wondered if he might be on the verge of a heart attack.
“What do you need?” Bill asked in a whisper.
She smiled. “Good answer,” She turned back to Hybrid. “Bit tense in here, buddy.”
Hybrid’s ears flicked forward into an easy position and he lay down where he stood, crossing one giant foreleg over the other.
He rested his enormous head atop the leg and watched Makoto and the man with a curious expression.
“Thanks.” Makoto reached down to Bill.
Even laying down, Hybrid easily rivaled the sofa in size.
Bill hesitantly slipped his hand into hers and let her help him up.
“My only charge against you, Mr. Greenhook, is that you tried to have me kidnapped.” Makoto gestured for him to sit on the sofa across from Hybrid, carefully skirting the gaping hole in the floor.
She half expected him to fire off some excuse about him having no choice or him regretting having to do it, but he didn’t.
“Yeah,” He said instead. “And as soon as Mittens hits the road, I’ll tie you up in my basement.” He looked pointedly at the ocean that was visible in the middle of the room.
“Hmm.” Makoto smiled at him, completely unbothered.
As if Hybrid was going to leave before she did.
“Good luck with that,” She stood in front of him, hands tucked neatly in her pockets. “Where are the things that Heilner left with the crew?”
“The artifacts?” Greenhook clarified. “I don’t have them.”
She watched his eyes carefully. “Where are they?”
He glanced away from her eyes for less than a second. “I don’t know.” He said firmly.
Hybrid knew it too. Not even lifting his head, he uttered another low growl.
“Try again.” Makoto offered.
Greenhook pursed his lips and sat there silently. Makoto grew annoyed. “Well, I’m pretty short on time, so...” She glanced back at Hybrid.
She could feel the unease in the room rise drastically as Hybrid slowly lifted his head.
Bill uttered an involuntary whimper as the huge cat lazily got to his feet and prowled around behind the couch.
Makoto watched Greenhook go pale as he realized that the cat was right behind him.
“Care to share?” Makoto asked again.
Bill snapped his eyes shut and shook his head frantically.
Makoto’s eyes flicked up to find Hybrid watching her, waiting for a signal. She nodded slightly.
Hybrid lifted his right foreleg and let his paw fall limply on Bill’s chest.
The old man’s mouth fell open and a sob broke free, but he shook his head again.
Hybrid drew his paw back, claws slicing thin lines across Bill’s chest and over his shoulder.
Makoto flinched. Her gaze shot up to Hybrid in shock. She hadn’t meant to torture Bill—just to scare him.
She never wanted to torture him for information.
But Hybrid’s methods worked and his eyes flew open. “Maggie’s Veteran Hospital on Airport Road.” He gasped, jerking away from the gigantic cat.
Makoto fell silent, narrowing her eyes at him. That was where Chester was. Chester had found a lead that pointed to MVH and that’s where he was when the sterilizer blew up on him.
“The last two were hidden there last time I heard about them. Downstairs somewhere. I don’t know where.” He had a pleading look on his face as he silently begged her to believe him.